Why Can’t We Be More Understanding of Others? — Getting to Why

This is a Part 2. Part 1 can be found here.

In the last post we talked about how our holistic camera—our self-identities, personal experiences, mindsets—and contextual lenses—mood, preconceived notions, and instant reactions—influence our daily lives and the things and people we interact with.

In a shellnut, our holistic camera and contextual lens are the driving factors that elicit our response to anything. We can think of the way we approach a topic or situation—be it something political like the justification of the death penalty or something minute like our reaction to a tailgater—like this:

When other people get involved, it starts looking like this:

Don’t let the proximity of the people in the illustration fool you, though. It’s not always a straightforward interaction; sometimes it’s over the Internet, or sometimes we literally just aren’t able to confront those involved.

I also want to make it crystal clear that I’m not only talking about sided topics, like political or social issues where there is often a large divide between two or a few overall mindsets; I’m also talking about smaller, more mundane disputes that we tend to overlook: not liking the way someone spoke to you, getting upset at a grade you got, and looking down upon the actions of fellow drivers who cause you minor inconveniences on the road are just a few examples.

The amount of people engaged, the length of the interaction, and the relationships among those involved all play a factor in our interactions with them. But those elements can all be traced back to one very principle: when it comes down to understanding others, it’s not that we struggle to understand what a person is saying or doing, but rather, we struggle trying to understand why they’re saying or doing the things they are.

And wrapping our heads around that simple idea right there—how to get comfortable with that elusive why and how that can help us understand others better—is what this post is going to be about.

Get used to not knowing

The most basic problem with understanding others is one we’re supposed to grow out of as we mature: failing to realize that others are looking through a camera in the first place. When you’re five years old, no one is expecting you to know how to consider others’ feelings. But by the time you’re…what, eight, nine, ten? you’re supposed to know how that works. Or maybe I’m overestimating the emotional intelligence of eight year olds. I don’t know.

Understanding that the camera exists, however, is not where most of us who are not under ten years of age struggle. No, where we falter is when we don’t know what that camera is comprised of, and when we aren’t comfortable with the fact that we don’t know what it’s comprised of. 

This seems like it would make sense. If one’s holistic camera is the key to understanding who they are, then of course we wouldn’t be comfortable engaging in a potential conflict with them without knowing what it contains. 

But that’s the thing: when we’re not a part of the situation, we do a pretty good job of staying within our lane and remaining level headed with other people. The problems only arise when we engage and become the ones directly involved. 

Depending on our relationships with the people at hand, the level of clarity we have of someone’s camera is on a spectrum like this:

When you know more about where someone is coming from, then it’s easier to have more intelligent and genuine interactions with them—whether or not you agree with what they say or do is a whole other matter. But of course, we’re not always interacting with our close friends and family, which means we have to deal with that uncertainty of others’ cameras.

And without a transparent camera to base our opinions off of, we’re left with two options: be patient and slowly piece together the other person’s camera and lens, or cut a few corners and come up with our own assumptions of what their camera and lens contains.  

For planned and more formal interactions where it’s understood disagreements may arise, such as in debates or one-on-one conferences, we know to be more patient with our judgments. But in much more common and impromptu situations—seeing flame wars on Internet comment threads, passing by a stranger who says something offensive in public, or getting into a random dispute with peers—we may not be as tolerant.

The ultimate goal: being okay—wary, but not uncomfortable—with blurry and unknown cameras, and approaching interactions with the mindset that the other party probably has a good reason (at least, in their mind) for their words or actions; additionally, staying patient and resisting the urge to assume or negatively stereotype.

If we want to be more understanding of others—and if we want others to be more understanding of everyone else, too—then we should be striving to reach for that unknown camera more and more when we interact with others instead of taking the easy route and jumping to conclusions.

You’re forgetting about the other camera

Recognizing that other people look through cameras is one half of the equation. The other half involves yourself, and realizing that you are looking through a camera, too. It sounds obvious, but that’s because you’ve been seeing all of these illustrations from the third person perspective, which allows you to see the entirety of the situation. If we look at a simple conversation between you and one other person from a first person perspective, we’d see this:

It’s a lot harder to see our own camera now, isn’t it?

We place a lot of emphasis on finding ways to see clearly from someone else’s perspective, but realistically it’s a lot harder to see from our side unbiased. This is because no matter what type of camera and lens we look through, they both ultimately restrict our possible ways of viewing something. Additionally, it’s very hard to be aware of this even when we try—yeah let’s give a quick shout out to Nick Carraway from the Great Gatsby—because it’s easy to forget that our perspectives are limited. 

On top of this inherent limitation, we’re inclined to interpret things we hear or see in ways to support our own existing beliefs; this has become known as confirmation bias.  

If you don’t keep this in check, it can get pretty bad and potentially irreversible.

So when we disagree with people, it’s imperative that we distance ourselves from—well, ourselves, because if we’re so convinced of our own outlook on the situation and don’t respect the perspectives of others, then getting to their why is impossible; we’d just be setting ourselves up for failure from the very start. 

If we want to understand others, we have to set our personal beliefs aside first before continuing.

Asking yourself questions like: That person just made a remark that I don’t like, but was it really an insensitive comment or am I interpreting it like one because of the way I’ve grown to react to those types of comments? or How is my current mood affecting the way I’m thinking about this situation? are examples of ways to detach from ourselves and proceed more fairly. Another common distancing technique is asking yourself how you would react if a friend approached you with the same situation. 

But at the end of the day, distancing ourselves is something we’re all capable of doing (just like with choosing to be patient with others): it’s just a matter of how often we want to and when. Simply put, the more we apply this concept to even the most inconsequential interactions in our daily lives, the easier it becomes to understand where others are coming from and reduce the severity of stigmas plaguing society.

The ultimate goal: getting better at temporarily tabling our own viewpoints and taking a step back from ourselves in order to view things from a third person perspective: 

What now?

The combination of choosing not to judge immediately and putting our own beliefs and perspectives to the side will help us to understand people better. So naturally, the question turns to how we’re supposed to handle what comes next: discussion with others.

Additionally, it’s one thing to be understanding of others, but how far are we supposed to take it? If we keep lending the benefit of doubt to others, when do we ever get to stand our ground? How are we meant to handle getting disrespected? At what point do we say, “that’s enough”?

We’ll cap off this series by exploring those two ideas: how we converse with others and figuring out where to draw that proverbial line in the sand.

Part 3 can be found here.

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